Thursday, April 17, 2014

And Let Them Know About It!

A colleague pointed out recently to me that I do something fairly naturally which is not something every minister or even every congregation knows how to do, which is to get the word out about significant actions that I or my congregation has taken, both within the UUA and in the local media.

I credit two people with having trained me to do this.  One is my internship supervisor and mentor Drew Kennedy, who I remember talking to me during internship specifically about how to work with your congregation and board around your media presence.  The second is a workshop that was held at our UUMA chapter meeting with John Hurley presenting that I attended during my first year in ministry.  I've attended subsequent workshops, and now teach communications at our local college, so all this has been added to in small ways over the years.

The basic is this: If you're doing something newsworthy in your congregation or town, let people know about it.  Let them know about it beforehand, and then let them know about it afterwards.

First, for ministers, a word of caution, straight from what I remember Drew teaching me back in 1999-2000, but it's still as wise today.  It's important to have a clear understanding with your board and your congregation about the minister's role in contacting the media and being a media presence.  And even if you have that sort of clear understanding, contact them and tell them every time you know you'll be in the paper, if you have time to do so, before the article comes out.  It is helpful, but not sufficient, to have something in your letter of agreement, but the real understanding need to be there between you and the congregational leadership.  My letter of agreement simply says this: "The Minister is encouraged to be visible and involved in social action in the community, preferably in consonance with the social mission of the Congregation."  But over time, we've developed an understanding that I'm pretty free to, and even encouraged to, talk to our local press.

With that said, before your big action or event, if possible, you want to tell your local press.  Develop a relationship with the reporter who is the one who covers religion, but also with one who covers the local news beat in general.  You don't always want to be on the religion page only.  E-mail your press releases to the paper itself more generally, but also to the specific reporters.  Develop a quick press release format where you don't have to spend too much time writing, or find a specific volunteer in the congregation who is particularly good at this.  I'm lucky that my RE Coordinator also is handy at this, so if I want a press release to go out and there's enough turn-around time, I contact her.  It helps to develop a list of local media sources with their contact information, so that you can send it out to a bunch of sources all at once. 

For example, when I said I was not going to sign marriage licenses anymore, I wrote up a quick press release.  I had one from ten years earlier saved on my hard drive about a related stance I took in Massachusetts, and I changed the quotes and dates and details, and e-mailed it to the reporter that had written the most recent article at our local paper that I had been involved in on marriage equality.  It bounced back saying she was out of town and giving some other writers' e-mails, so I sent it on to them.  The next morning I awoke to a phone call from one of those reporters.  And then the day after that, I was on the front page of the paper.  It was really that easy, because I had a template and knew what to do and who to contact.  The most important thing about getting that article was that I thought to tell them.  Too often we take great actions in our congregations and don't think to tell the press.

After you've done something, and particularly if you have an article in your paper or or on local TV, it's time to tell the UU movement about it.  There are a few places you want to share your message about the exciting and interesting things your church is doing.  The UUA will often find out without you telling, partly because they have a clippings service.  But some of our local papers might not get picked up by that, and it never hurts to tell them yourself.  If you have a "congregational life story" you can send it to websubmissions @ uua.org.  And then there's the UU World, where Rachel Walden compiles a media round-up of UUs in the news weekly, which can be found at http://blogs.uuworld.org/media.  This is a list of UUs in the news, so if your congregation or minister has made the local paper or TV station, you can submit your story to the UU World directly for inclusion there.  If it's a big enough story, the UU World may elect to do a larger news article on it, as well.  So as soon as something has happened in our town where it makes the local paper, I e-mail that article to the UUA and the UU World, just to make sure they don't miss it. 

Those are the primary places to notify with your news in our movement, but your district or region may have a webpage where they post stories, as well. The MidAmerica Region does.  And if you have a state-wide advocacy network, you might let them know if they do a newsletter.  And lastly, if you're writing up your story yourself and it fits their mission, you can send it to Standing on the Side of Love for their blog and e-mails.

As an example of this, after our brief day of marriage equality where same-sex marriages were performed in Michigan, I realized how instrumental UUs had been in the four counties where our clerks had opened for Saturday business.  I wrote up a synopsis for the MidAmerica board, because we write little things to each other about what congregations are doing and what justice efforts are being done in our states.  The MidAmerica staff asked to share it on their webpage, and then our state advocacy network, MUUSJN, asked to share it as well.  I posted that to Facebook, where it then got shared with friends on staff at the UU World.  Realizing their interest, I e-mailed them and the UUA a copy of what I had written, and then the UU World contacted me and then other ministers to get a longer story.  Would the UU World have known what happened if I hadn't done this?  Yes, they would've seen news clippings of the individual actions of UU ministers in the four counties.  But contacting them helped them to put the story together into one larger story, which is that ministers serving UU churches were instrumental in making what happened that day possible.  And that helped create the larger and important narrative for our movement about what we're doing. 

Back when I took that workshop with John Hurley in 2002, he said to send him an e-mail when we were in the paper.  Back then the articles didn't have links, but they could get the article through their clipping service.  And they would take those articles and circulate them around the UUA.  I imagine a manila folder.   I don't think they do that anymore -- they probably just read the UUs in the News column weekly.  But I still send my news articles to John Hurley -- and now he tells me he'll forward them to Rachel Walden for UUs in the News, so that's really the place to send them.  But it was neat when I sent him the article about not signing licenses that he remembered when I had sent him the press coverage I got ten years ago, and was pleased that this could still have an impact in our local communities, which it does.

The moral is, don't be afraid to be a little shameless about telling your story and getting your word out there.  It's exciting for other Unitarian Universalists to hear what you've been doing, particularly when it comes to justice work.  We learn from reading the stories of the work done in other congregations, and we feel more connected as a movement.  And in your local papers, showing that your congregation is doing justice work is not only important for getting the justice cause heard, it's important for telling your community what Unitarian Universalism is.  It's okay for justice work to have the side benefit of raising your congregational profile in your community -- let your acts shine.